On Nov. 1, 1936, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini gave a speech celebrating the treaty he had signed with German dictator Adolf Hitler. “This Berlin-Rome protocol is not a barrier, it is rather an axis around which all European States animated by a desire for peace may collaborate on troubles,” he told a cheering crowd. A term was born, and a few years later, the Axis was at war with the Allies.
On Jan. 29, 2002, President George W. Bush revived the term — with a twist. He called Ali Khamenei’s Islamist regime in Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Iraq and Kim Jong-il’s Communist North Korea — three regimes collaborating against the U.S. and other free nations — the Axis of Evil.
Today, a new axis has emerged. We might call it the Axis of Tyrannies. It formed a year ago when Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an agreement stating that henceforth there would be “no limits to Sino-Russian cooperation … no forbidden zones.” The other major tyrant collaborating around this axis is Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — still evil after all these years.
While differing in important ways, these tyrants all subscribe to an authoritarian and collectivist vision of society. All are irrevocably hostile to America and, beyond that, to Enlightenment values of individual rights and democratic governance.
Modern tyrants, like ancient tyrants, wage war to win glory. But modern tyrants also have an ideological mission. They require the submergence of the individual in the collective through the progressive transformation of human nature. That is why Mussolini, a fascist dictator, praised communist dictator Vladimir Lenin as a “sculptor of men.”
For Mr. Putin, the goal is the “new world” of a Eurasianist empire; for Mr. Xi, the ceaseless extension of his totalitarian “social credit” blueprint and the replacement of the American-led liberal international order with one that is illiberal and whose rules are made in Beijing; for Mr. Khamenei, the restoration of a powerful new Islamic empire.
We believe today’s Allies have no more important mission than to stand up to today’s Axis and prevent it from achieving its goals. Whether Allied leaders and those who vote them into office will see that as their priority is difficult to predict.
One encouraging note: All three Axis regimes are enduring difficulties, none more serious than in Iran, where the Khamenei dictatorship has been beset not just by an unprecedented demand for rights — women’s rights in particular — but by opposition to clerical rule.
Nevertheless, his regime continues to threaten his neighbors. He provides funds and arms to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and of course, Hezbollah, through which he dominates Lebanon, which is now — not merely coincidentally — a failing state.
Mr. Khamenei’s forces have propped up the mass-murdering Assad dictatorship in Syria. His weapons arm the Houthi rebels in Yemen. His Shia militias build their power in Iraq.
Most strikingly, his regime has begun supplying Mr. Putin with weapons for use in his war to conquer Ukraine — the first direct military incursion into European affairs by a Muslim power since the Ottomans. As a member of the Axis of Tyrannies, he doubtless sees this as his duty. He expects reciprocal benefits.
Mr. Xi has revived Maoism, a tyrannical ideology if ever there was one. In a little-noticed move, his official biography was amended to include detailed notes he supposedly made as a young man on Mao Zedong’s teachings.
He egregiously violated international law by abruptly ending Beijing’s treaty obligation to rule Hong Kong under the principle of “one country, two systems.” He is committing what the U.S. and other Western governments consider genocide against the Muslim Turkic people of East Turkistan, which he calls Xinjiang (Chinese for “new borders”). He is crushing Tibetan culture.
And, of course, he is threatening to invade and conquer Taiwan, which could lead to Beijing’s dominance of Asia, a steppingstone toward global dominance. Mr. Xi’s new team is being called his “war cabinet,” and he’s now reportedly considering sending advanced weapons to Russia.
When Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine, he expected — as did many others — a cakewalk. But the Russian military proved inadequate to the task, and the Ukrainians have demonstrated astonishing courage and determination in defense of the independence and freedom they have enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Putin’s war has opened fissures at home as he attempts to balance among the regular military, provincial warlords such as Ramzan Kadyrov (a Chechen tyrant and quisling), and the Wagner Group, a private army created — in classic tyrannical fashion — by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ex-convict who made a fortune as the Kremlin’s caterer.
Of note, the history of tyrannies run from dinner tables includes Cyrus the Great’s gardens, Stalin’s dacha, Hitler’s Alpine vacation home, and Castro’s restaurant-hopping with his entourage in Cuba. Since the tyrant “owns” the entire society, the political is absorbed into his personal household.
The Axis of Tyrannies will no doubt draw lessons from what Mr. Putin does or does not achieve. Its leaders will make decisions based on whether the Allies are steadfast in their support of Ukraine over time or confirm the prediction of 9/11 mastermind (and tyrant) Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to his CIA interrogator: “We will win because … we do not need to defeat you militarily; we only need to fight long enough for you to defeat yourself by quitting.”
Unlike elected leaders, tyrants seldom go into a comfortable retirement. Of course, that only makes them more determined and indeed desperate to prevail.
The conflict between the Axis and the free nations is likely to be long and challenging. But from the Battle of Salamis to D-Day to the fall of the Berlin Wall, tyrannies have been defeated. Though that may be a cause for optimism, it’s no justification for complacency.
• Waller R. Newell, an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), is professor of political science and philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. He is the author of “Tyranny and Revolution: Rousseau to Heidegger” [cambridge.org] and “Tyrants: Power, Injustice and Terror” [cambridge.org] (2019). Clifford D. May is the founder and president of FDD and a columnist for The Washington Times.